Dictionaries Are Important Reference Tools For Writers
It’s the little things that often get overlooked.
Writers feel they have to struggle to find the right word, almost as if the struggle itself somehow makes the discovery valid. But help is at hand, and it’s a lot closer than you think.
I’m talking about reference books, and dictionaries in particular. No matter how you go about the business of writing, reference materials are always important. They’re part of every writer’s toolkit, like a carpenter’s hammer and saw. And just like a carpenter, a writer can use these tools to construct a solid piece of prose, a short story, a poem, an article, a book or some web copy.
Dictionaries have been part of the writer’s palette since Dr. Samuel Johnson created A Dictionary of the English Language way back in the 1750s. Browse the reference section of any library or bookstore and you’ll find dictionaries covering a host of topics: languages, medicine, dreams, fictional characters, scrabble, finance, etc. And then there are rhyming dictionaries, multilingual dictionaries, legal dictionaries, dictionaries of symbols, cultural literacy, biblical imagery, philosophy and so on.
Most mainstream dictionaries have online presences these days, so it’s possible to access them without even reaching across to your bookcase. There are a few more exotic dictionaries out there, too, such as Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary – a fascinating tongue-in-cheek twist on the concept with some scathing definitions, including:
Wit, n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.
Variations come in all shapes and sizes, with titles like Who’s Who in Shakespeare (or Dickens), collections of this or that, and volumes named A Dictionary of the 20th Century, for instance. Of course, those lazy writers among us need only bookmark the site at Dictionary.com and/or Thesaurus.com to have everything at hand. But there’s something about flipping through a book and landing on a page — particularly one with new words on it — that can’t be equalled.
I have a copy of The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary. It’s a massive tome, nicely bound with gilt-edged pages. I opened it at random and found this entry:
gyve, n. A fetter for the limbs of prisoners.
Pronounced jive, here’s a word I’d never heard before. Will I use it anywhere else? I’m not sure. But it conjures up a bunch of images. Like a group of convicts, gyve talking. It’s expanding my vocabulary and giving me story ideas at the same time. And that’s just one word on one page.
Forget writer’s block. If you own a good dictionary you’ll never be stuck for a word. You can even create stories or articles out of thin air just by choosing three words at random from different places in the book. They don’t necessarily have to be unfamiliar words, but sometimes putting three unrelated words together can help spark off an idea or two.
I visited Morocco in 2007, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I realised what a chafferer I’d been.
Don’t know what I mean? Then look it up! That’s what dictionaries are for.